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Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

IT is a brave soul who takes on the daunting task, not to mention the high expectations of over 100 million devoted fans.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone

IT is a brave soul who takes on the daunting task, not to mention the high expectations of over 100 million devoted fans. So hats off to director Chris Columbus for even trying to bring one of the most popular literary heroes in recent living memory to the big screen.

Such undertakings are fraught with difficulty. Filmmakers must try to remain true to the source, or face the wrath and poor box office from disappointed fans.

They must also avoid becoming mired in the endless idiosyncrasies of the book which would lead to an overstuffed turkey which makes the unabridged version of Hamlet look like a ten minute short.

Bearing this in mind, as well as the phenomenal hype machine accompanying Harry Potter, has Columbus managed to pull a rabbit or a turkey out of his hat?

Yes, he has bridged the gap between the expectations of millions of clamouring fans and the expectant cinema audience in high style.

Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone is a magical mixture of believable fantasy, mystery, action, adventure and thrilling emotion.

The story opens at night in a very ordinary English suburban street where some very un-ordinary people are carrying out a very important task.

Powerful wizard Albus Dumbledore (Richard Harris) is joined by a cat who transfigures into a witch, Professor McGonagall (Dame Maggie Smith). They await the arrival of the gigantic Rubeus Hagrid (Robbie Coltrane) and the precious cargo he is carrying, the newly orphaned baby Harry Potter.

Harry's parents have been murdered by the evil wizard, Voldemort. But as 'he who must not be named' tried to finish off Harry, his curse somehow backfired leaving Voldemort presumed dead, and baby Harry with both an unusual lightning-bolt shaped scar on his forehead and instant fame in the wizarding world as 'The boy who lived'.

For his own good, Harry is left in the care of his only relatives, the Dursleys. However Uncle Vernon (Richard Griffiths) and Aunt Petunia (Fiona Shaw) are Muggles - non-magical folk who are often a bit dim - not only this, they are horrible, bullying social-climbers who care only for their greedy, odious spoilt brat of a son, Dudley (Harry Melling).

Harry's life is not a happy one as he spends the next ten years in ignorance of his heritage. He is treated like a slave and forced to sleep in the cupboard under the stairs.

That is, until his eleventh birthday approaches and with it a rash of curious letters addressed to Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), delivered by owls and manically destroyed by Vernon before Harry can read them.

But the Dursley's cannot ignore Hagrid, who despite their best efforts, arrives on Harry's birthday and reveals the truth, that Harry is a wizard and is to enrol in the prestigious Hogwarts school for Witchcraft and Wizardry where he is about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime.

The story is pretty much faithful to JK Rowling's book, but some fans may be a little disappointed that many details of the book have been condensed to fit the film.

That said, the film runs at 2 ½ hours, and the compression, or cutting of material was probably unavoidable or else the audience would be in historical epic country which would have been box office suicide.

Columbus and screenwriter Stephen Kloves have tried to keep the core of the story in tact and tried to include as much of the characterisation and observations as possible, and on the whole they have succeeded.

As a result, the film is faithful to the story and well paced, juxtaposing the narrative and action elements of the story well (I will admit as a huge fan I would have stayed glued for at least another two hours).

The look of the film is fabulous, with Columbus and cinematographer John Seale flawlessly combining the magical world with the everyday one.

You could really believe that magical places like Diagon Alley could exist under our very noses.

One of the main fears when the film was announced was that the story would be 'Americanised'.

Thankfully there are no vomit-inducing, syrupy brats in sight.

Radcliffe is refreshingly sweet as Harry, the utter niceness of his character is made believable with a streak of pathos which prevents him from becoming cloying.

His closest friends: the grinningly awkward Ron Weasley (Rupert Grint) and the bossy know-it-all, but fiercely loyal Hermione Granger (Emma Watson) are a delight.

And newcomers Grint and Watson often threaten to steal the show.

They are joined by a host of magical characters played by some of the crème de la crème of British acting talent.

Alan Rickman attacks his role of the slimy Professor Snape with gusto and will remind everyone of 'that' teacher they hated at school.

John Cleese appears -literally as Nearly Headless Nick, Gryffindor house's resident ghost.

The effects are first rate, as you would expect from Industrial Light and Magic, invisibility cloaks, giant three-headed dogs, mountain trolls and baby dragons become real.

Some of the action scenes are jaw-droppingly excellent, the Quidditch match, in particular, is superb and will make you sorry that it is not actually a real sport in our world.

Hogwarts is a character all on its own, replete with constantly changing staircases (because they like to), animated paintings, sprawling gothic architecture and the magnificent Great Hall with its floating candles and enchanted ceiling that reflect the outside sky.

Add to this a spellbinding score by John Williams and you have a potion that just cannot fail and will leave audiences screaming for more.

Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets is shooting now with a proposed release date November 2002, it just cannot come quick enough.


David Holmes
Chief News Reporter
David Norbury
Mike Fuller
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